October 5, 1980

 

October 5, 1980


October 5, 1980, was a sunny autumn Sunday in New England. Four of us met in Manchester, Connecticut for a fall foliage cruise on our bikes. There was my close friend and riding partner, Eddie, and a friend from work, Ron, who brought along a friend of his named Brian. Eddie had his Harley, Ron and friend each had large 1000cc Kawasaki motorcycles. I had my 1980 Yamaha 650cc Special II, known as the best British twin ever made. The four of us met for coffee and breakfast. The plan was to head up I-91 into southern Vermont, cross over the Green Mountains south of Stratton Mountain, pick up Rte 7 on the western border of the state, and follow that down through the scenic Berkshires of Massachusetts. Finally, we could pick up Rte 44 in Connecticut, and follow that back through Hartford and on towards home. When we finished breakfast, we fired up the bikes and headed west towards Hartford, where we found the I-91 and turned to the north.
 
It was cool out on the interstate in the early morning, but we needed to put some miles behind us to reach the beginning of the scenic portion of our ride. In an hour, we were through Springfield, Mass. We continued up into Vermont were we headed west on Rte 9. From there, we picked up Rte 100 in Wilmington and followed it north about 25 miles, where we turned to the west on the Stratton-Arlington Road. The road turned to hard gravel and we slowly made our way over the crest of the Green Mountains; we passed the parking area for the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail at a point where they crossed the road near the crest. We headed down the scenic western slope to finally join Rte 7 and head south. This stretch was beautiful but the traffic was busy as the leaf peepers were out in force.
 
We crossed into Massachusetts and soon we were approaching Pittsfield. I was leading on the left center, Eddie behind me and to the right; Ron and Brian staggered the same way behind us. It was about 5:00PM as we approached a busy intersection, the traffic in front of us going through. The sun was in front of me, glaring in the scratches of my plastic face shield. I saw nothing, and continued through the intersection.  
 
I looked up to see a large car heading at me from the left! Oh man, I knew this was it. I lay forward on my tank and with a twist of my wrist I screwed it on, the front end rising in response to the acceleration. It was only fractions of a second, but I waited for what I knew was coming. The impact was terrible. I was airborne and saw the asphalt rising up to meet me. I had my right arm up before my face in a feeble gesture of protection. I hit on the right side, arm and head first, then felt my body hit the road, and a terrible electric current of pain traveled through my feet. There was another hit on my left side as I bounced over on my back and slid halfway up a sidewalk, my helmet taking a hit in the rear from the curb.

I lay there for a second with people screaming behind me, looking up into the sky and at the utility wires strung overhead. My heart was racing. I was moving and feeling around for something broken in my body, I was sure there would be something, but for now, it was a pure adrenalin high. At least I was alive. The screaming in the background continued. A strange man knelt down over my face and talked to me in a calm voice.
 
“Take it easy, son. I’m an off-duty police officer and an ambulance is on the way. Just stay ..”
 
There was a thud and a grunt as a vicious hockey-style hip check sent the officer flying from my field of view, to leave Eddie standing above me yelling, ”You OK, man? What is it? Tell me!”
 
Other police and ambulances arrived, and soon the story became clear. I was okay, but I knew I was going to hurt later. Pittsfield was one of those towns in Massachusetts that still had stoplights on the side of the road, they did not hang over the intersection. As we approached this busy crossroads with walk-signs, route signs, and telephone poles all competing for space on the side of the road, the sun was directly in front of me glaring on the plastic face shield of my helmet. The stoplights were on the far side of the intersection, amid everything else. I never saw the red light.
 
The car that hit me was a large Pontiac from the early 1970’s. The left front hit my bike about four inches behind my leg. If I had hit the brakes instead of accelerating, or hesitated for an instant, I may have lost my leg. At the very least, I would have been seriously injured.
 
My helmet had a large gouge and crack on the right side to mark the site of first impact, a smaller one was on the left. I was glad that it had been my helmet, and not my head, that made contact with the asphalt.
 
Eddie ran into the car that had hit me. Imagine their shock; they hit me and, as they watch me go airborne, Eddie comes in through the windshield on their right. Eddie, who had seen the car hit me, pulled himself off the hood of their car and rushed over to assist me. Eddie was a veteran of two combat tours of duty with the Marines in Vietnam. As he told the story later to the off-duty police officer that he had unceremoniously ejected from my view, Eddie felt that there was no person on the scene who could have provided better emergency trauma care than he. That sat well with the officer, who was not in uniform, and everything related to that body blow was forgotten with a handshake.
 
Everyone thought I should go to the hospital for a check-up. I declined, I just wanted to go home. The old grandmother, who had been sitting as a passenger in the front seat of the car that hit us, went to the hospital in one of the ambulances; she was having trouble breathing.  Ed and I accepted our traffic tickets for failure to obey a traffic signal; it could have been worse. The post-accident process took about two hours. Now, in the dark and cold, we sat on the rear of Ron and Brian’s bikes to make the long three-hour ride to our homes in Connecticut.
 
That night was agony. I could barely stand from the pain in my feet; they have never been the same. I had a ten-inch ugly black bruise on my right buttock that marked where I carried my wallet in my jeans. My back and head hurt terribly. Let’s just say that as far as my marriage was concerned, a marriage that would formally dissolve less than two years later, this was not a night given over to succor and comfort. After my wife went to work on Monday, I struggled through the day, wondering if I should go to the hospital.
 
On Tuesday I was not much better. Eddie called, telling me he was on the way over to pick me up. “For what,”  I asked.
 
“We need to get our bikes out of there, or we’re going to owe a lot of money in storage costs. It doesn’t take long to add up. I’ve borrowed a truck.“ Eddie worked at a garage; I knew he was right. We did not have insurance, either. This was legal for operating a motorcycle, but all expenses would be out of our pockets.
 
“Ed, I can hardly move.”
 
“It doesn’t matter, I need company for the ride, and it will take all day. I’ll carry you where ever you need to go.” I had visions of Ed carrying me into the toilet, and propping me up before a urinal. As hard as it was, though, I went. That day, a day that was a long and painful one for me, we retrieved both bikes from the town of Pittsfield in Massachusetts, and got them unloaded and stored safely at our homes in Connecticut.
 
One day late in October, we left at five in the morning and drove up to Pittsfield together to appear in court. We wore sport coats and ties, and we brought along with us a Polaroid camera to take pictures of the intersection. We found the intersection on Rte 7 and took about ten photos. Then we found the court. We were waiting alone in a large courtroom and no one else appeared. We asked someone walking in the corridor if we were in the right place; he informed us that we were in the Superior Court, we wanted the district courtroom in the basement.
 
This was much more informal than the halls of justice above. Many here seemed to be the flotsam and jetsam of society. Ed and I were the only ones wearing ties and sport coats, except the attorneys of course. We reported to the judge and apologized for being late, we explained about being upstairs in the wrong courtroom. We showed him our pictures and told our story of the accident. When we were through, we stood before the bench awaiting his decision and his justice.
 
First, he said that he was familiar with the intersection and knew it to be a dangerous one. He also knew that  Massachusetts was replacing those stoplights with lights that hung suspended over busy intersections. That being said, other people saw them and obeyed them, and it was up to us to do the same. He also acknowledged that he had talked with officers who were at the scene on the day of the accident, and they had told him we caused no trouble, treated the officers with respect, and he was taking this into consideration as well. He said he also knew about Eddie’s bone-jarring check on the off-duty officer who had been kneeling over me. He didn’t finish that thought; he just smiled. He also noted that, although operating a motorcycle without liability insurance may be legal in Connecticut, it is illegal for a motorcycle to be without liability insurance in the State of Massachusetts. 

He appreciated the way we had brought pictures of the intersection, and how we calmly stated our case; he appreciated the respect we had shown the court by wearing ties and jackets. His judgment was this: a small traffic fine for each of us on the red light violation, and an order to pay the costs incurred by the owner of the car that had been involved in the accident. We were lucky; the woman in the ambulance had a check-up and some oxygen at the hospital, and then they sent her home. There was no lawsuit hanging over us. The court gave us a form and told us whose signature was required when we met our financial responsibility and all costs were paid. He told us that severe consequences would ensue if we failed to meet our financial responsibilities. We both said thank you to the judge, and we meant it.

That is how the adventure of October 5, 1980, ended. It cost us about 2,000 dollars each to repair the car, pay for the ambulance and hospital, pay for towing and storage of the bikes. My feet have never been the same, and back problems later in life may have been a result of that crash. However, I have only considered myself lucky when I look back and think about it.
 
The events of that day have always been with me. From that day onward, every time I threw my leg over my bike before a ride, memories of that day and the accident would come for a visit. I did not feel haunted, it was good to be cautious; bad things happen in an instant out there. Sometimes, especially late at night when I am half-awake, I can relive it all in vivid detail; I’m accelerating through the middle of the intersection, leaning forward over my tank, waiting for the impact. And the sweat comes to my palms. Every time.

October 2007
Los Angeles